3 Years Later
"Laladadada, laladadada, laladadada-ladada."
"Is that you, Lyddie?"
"Over here, Lizzy!" Lydia called over the shrubbery in the rose garden.
"What are you singing, dearest?"
"Just a little nonsense. Is that a new dress?"
"Yes. I've outgrown all the others," she said with a pat to her burgeoning belly.
"Just a few more months now." Lydia patted her sister's arm affectionately. "Do you think this will be your last one?"
"Not yet twelve years of marriage and I'm on my sixth confinement. I certainly hope it is my last one!"
"Well, dear sister, you know how to put a stop to those pesky confinements," Lydia said with a smirk as she dropped another blossom into her basket.
Elizabeth swatted her arm playfully. "Lydia!" she cried, then couldn't help laughing with her sister. She sighed resignedly. "Don't think I haven't tried before. I just can't seem to hold my resolve," she said with a guilty look on her face.
"I know what you mean. That husband of yours is a cool drink of water." Elizabeth raised a brow. "I wonder that I never noticed him when we were younger. Of course I didn't notice a great many things when I was younger." Lydia's hand surreptitiously moved to her cheek, lightly fingering the scar that had faded into a narrow white line.
"You can hardly see it anymore, you know."
"The scar. You were touching it."
"I've noticed you do it when your thoughts are far away, in the past."
"I don't want to think about the past. It's a new day. Come Christmas I will have a new niece or nephew to spoil, and according to Kitty's last letter, she is expecting another in February."
"Is she? How wonderful! Will you go to her then?"
"She has asked me to. If you do not need me here, I will attend her. Jane has fully recovered from the girls and no longer requires assistance."
"You know, Lydia, you can live your own life. You don't have go from one sister to the other helping with children and confinements. Jane is nearly four and thirty and after the twins, I doubt she will be having any more children. You know the doctor said he does not believe she could, or should, conceive again. And with any luck, this will be my last." Lydia looked at her skeptically. "Don't give me that look! I am perfectly capable of self-control! Besides, I spoke with the midwife and she has given me some ideas to try. With any luck I will not be doing this again. Besides, it's not like I'm getting any younger!"
"You are only just two and thirty, Lizzy. Jane was three and thirty when she had the twins."
"Do not tease me about twins, Lydia! It is cruel and you know it!"
Lydia appraised her sister with a glint in her eye. "You know, you are looking a little larger than your last confinement. Perhaps there are two. Would you prefer two girls or two boys? Can you have one of each? Is such a thing possible?"
"Lydia!" Elizabeth would have rejoined further had Mrs. Reynolds not come looking for her. "I will speak to you later, Lyddie."
"Yes, sister." Lydia curtseyed mockingly and Elizabeth stuck her tongue out at her before finding the housekeeper on the path.
"Why do we call you Aunt Lydia?"
"Because I am your mother's sister. That is what you call the sisters of your parents."
"I know that! I mean why do we call you Aunt Lydia and not Aunt Wickham? You call great aunt Gardiner 'Aunt Gardiner', and we don't call Aunt Bennet 'Aunt Mary', Or Aunt Stephenson 'Aunt Kitty'. Why?"
"That's simple. I do not wish to be called Aunt Wickham. In fact, I would like to not be called Mrs. Wickham either, if I could have my way."
"If they didn't call you Mrs. Wickham, what would people call you?" asked nine-year-old Elizabeth.
"They could call me Miss Lydia, or even Miss Bennet."
"But you cannot be Miss Bennet! You would be an old maid!" As soon as she said it, Elizabeth knew she had crossed the line and clapped a hand over her mouth.
Lydia just laughed. "I would not mind so much being an old maid, Elizabeth. There are more things to life than marriage, you know."
"Like what?" asked Jonathon.
"Like friendship, and sisters and brothers and cousins to love and take care of, and nieces and nephews to spoil." She rumpled Jonathon's hair as he squirmed away from her.
"But what about love?" asked Elizabeth.
"Love is a beautiful thing, Betsy. Like your parents, or like Uncle and Aunt Darcy. I am so happy Jane found your father and that Lizzy found Mr. Darcy. But that is love, and unfortunately, not all marriages are based on it, as they ought to be."
"A rather deep topic for the nursery, don't you think?" said a warm voice from the doorway.
All at once, four dark haired children were climbing all over the tall, sandy-haired man, their blond cousins staying close to their aunt. "Easy, now! Easy! I'm not as young as I once was!"
The giggling eventually subsided and they dragged him over to their aunt and crowded around him on the settee.
"How was your journey, Colonel Fitzwilliam?" Lydia asked.
"Long. And how are you on this hot August day, Mrs. Wickham?"
"She does not like to be called Mrs. Wickham," said Bennet, the eldest and quietest of the Darcy children. Since meeting her three years ago, he had become fiercely protective of his fragile aunt, and with all the discernment of his ten and a half years he set about the task of ensuring her comfort at all times.
"Forgive me. How are you, Miss Lydia?"
"I am well. The children and I were going to walk down to the brook to escape the heat as soon as Michael wakes from his nap. Would you and Sophie care to join us?"
"Sophie is asleep after our journey, I'm afraid, but I would like to accompany you."
Soon they were walking along the banks of the creek in the forest, the three oldest Darcy children and the two oldest Bingleys racing ahead of them, 2 year old Michael clinging to Lydia's hand after he refused to go with his nurse.
"I'm afraid poor Molly has her work cut out for her," said Lydia.
"Yes, I suppose she does," he said, watching the young nurse scramble after the children. "Are all the Bingley children here?"
"Just Elizabeth and Charles. Thomas was too worried about Jane to leave her, and the twins are too young to be away from their parents for so long."
"Has Mrs. Bingley recovered then? Darcy was telling me you expected them in a few days."
"Yes, she is right as rain now. The twins merely took a lot out of her. It was quite difficult, as I'm sure you can imagine."
"I'd rather not, but thank you for the image," he said good humored-ly.
Lydia laughed. "It is truly good to see you again, Colonel."
"And you, Miss Lydia. I must say you are looking rather well."
"Fresh air, good food, and safety seem to be all I needed."
He nodded, understanding completely.
"And you? Are you finally enjoying life on an estate after so many years in the army?"
Colonel Fitzwilliam had given up his commission when his wife was expecting Sophie. He had found it difficult to adapt at first.
"It has its ups and downs. I am only glad it isn't larger. I don't know how Darcy does it. I have no desire to be involved in so many tenant disputes and crop rotations. I just want to enjoy a peaceful life in the country. Excitement is all very good, and when I was younger I craved it, but after so many years at war, I long for the solace of a comfortable home."
"I know exactly what you mean, Colonel. Lizzy tells me it is about the size of Longbourn. That is a nice size." She sighed deeply. "Sometimes I miss Hertfordshire."
"Have you gone back?"
"Since I married you mean?" He nodded. "No. There is no reason to, really. I spend my time between my sisters, and with Lizzy here, and Jane and Kitty in Yorkshire, what is there for me there? My aunt Phillips has passed on and her two sons moved away long before I did. I lost touch with my only real friend there, Maria Lucas, Maria Lawson now. It would feel like a ghost town, I think, with none of my family or friends there any longer."
"Could you not visit the Collinses at Longbourn?"
"I might be able to, but it would be strange to see Longbourn in someone else's hands. Did you know mama wanted Lizzy to marry Mr. Collins?" His eyebrows shot up. "He actually proposed. She turned him down flat. You could almost feel sorry for him if he wasn't so ridiculous. He should have asked Mary – she wouldn't have refused him."
"Is she the one living with an aunt in Oxford?"
"Yes. She never married. I daresay she never will, now. I don't think she ever really wanted to, but she might have been happy with Collins. She would at least have enjoyed being a vicar's wife. He was so blind – he could not see what she was worth underneath her stern exterior." She sighed again. "I suppose I was no better. I didn't really see her either, nor any of my sisters. Not even Kitty, whom I was so close to. Isn't it funny how we see things so clearly after it's too late to do anything about them?"
He looked at her seriously. "Yes, Miss Lydia, it's very funny."
"Oh! I am sorry, Colonel! I did not mean to remind you about Lady Lavinia."
"It's alright. It's been over two years now, I am quite recovered."
"I noticed you are no longer wearing mourning."
"No, it was two years last Easter. I am free to dress as I choose." He smiled without humor. "It is strange to look back on it, though. Sophie was looking at her portrait last week and asking me about her mother. I had a damnable time thinking of what to tell her. Forgive me, Miss Lydia -"
"Do not worry, Colonel. I've heard worse." She smiled wryly and they walked along in silence, following the children.
Four years after Darcy wed Elizabeth Bennet, Colonel Fitzwilliam married Lady Lavinia Harwick, daughter of the Earl of _ and dowered with forty thousand pounds. Three years later, they had a daughter, Sophie. When Sophie was nearly three years old, Lady Lavinia had grown weak, then ill, and finally ended up in a fevered haze, unaware of who she was or who anyone around her was either. She was later found to have an infectious bite, but by the time the source of her illness was discovered, she was too far gone to be saved. Six years after her wedding, she died in her bed at Highgate Manor, taking her unborn child with her and leaving behind a three year old daughter and a grieving husband.
"Have you heard what your sister and my cousin are up to?" asked the colonel.
"Do I want to know?"
"I always think it is best to be prepared in these sorts of situations."
"Oh dear. Then you had better tell me. Michael, run along and throw a stone into the water. Stay close to Molly." She sent him on his way and looked to Colonel Fitzwilliam.
"There have been a few additions to the guest list for the ball next month."
"Captain Moore, of the Royal Navy, and Colonel Thompson of the brigadiers."
Lydia groaned. "I have told Lizzy I am not interested in marrying again! And if I were, it would not be to another officer!" she declared exasperatedly. "No offense, Colonel."
"And who do they have for you? If I know my sister, she'll have lined up a few ladies for you to meet."
"You are correct. There is Miss Tatum, too young by far, and Mrs. Blathmore, a widow of eight and twenty. I stopped listening after that."
"Eight and twenty isn't too young."
"Ha! It will be difficult to carry on a conversation with one so young, let alone forge any kind of lasting connection."
"I am not yet seven and twenty, and you are talking quite easily to me."
"You? Seven and twenty? You seem much older!" Lydia smiled. "Forgive me, Miss Lydia, I know that is not the sort of thing a lady wants to hear."
"Normally you would be correct, sir, but in this case I will take it as a compliment."
They walked on in companionable silence until they reached the edge of the wide brook. The children were a few yards away, throwing stones into the water and seeing who could make a bigger splash.
"Perhaps you will get lucky and one of Lizzy's friends will catch your eye and you will fall madly in love." Lydia laughed lightly and Fitzwilliam raised a brow in doubt. "Do you think you will marry again, Colonel?"
"I don't know. Sophie could use a mother, certainly. My sister helps as much as she can, and of course Darcy and Elizabeth are available, but it is not quite the same."
"No, it is not."
He sighed. "Perhaps I will. I am only recently out of mourning, I have time yet. I do not wish to marry just anyone; I do have Sophie to think about now."
"You mustn't wait too long, though. You aren't getting any younger, you know."
He turned to face her and saw the gleam in her eyes and the smirk on her lips. "Why, Miss Lydia, I do believe you are teasing me! You are spending entirely too much time with your sister."
Lydia laughed, clear and easy, not the loud guffaw of years past. "Be careful, Colonel, or I will tell Lizzy you said that. You may find yourself staying in the attics next visit!"
Fitzwilliam threw back his head and laughed, his shoulders shaking with the effort. "She will do no such thing! I have just as many of her secrets in my keeping. Darcy would be quite anxious to know of some of them, I'm sure. And for the record," he looked down at her seriously, "I am not old!"
Lydia laughed again and took his arm as they began walking back toward the house behind the children. "Oh, Colonel, you are a treasure! I shall have to ask Lizzy to invite you to Pemberley more often."
"I am pleased to be a source of entertainment," he replied drolly.
She reached across and squeezed his arm between her hands. "Truly, I am glad you are here, Colonel. And any woman who secures your affection will be lucky indeed."
He reached over and pressed her hand. "Thank you, Miss Lydia."
One Month Later
"So what did you think?"
Lydia started out of her reverie. She was having tea in her private sitting room with Elizabeth and Jane the morning after the ball.
"Think about what?" she asked.
Elizabeth sighed in exasperation. "About Captain Moore! He seemed quite taken with you."
"Actually," chimed in Jane, "Colonel Thompson asked me about you."
"Oh, Jane! You did not tell me that!" exclaimed Elizabeth.
"Yes, he said you had a lovely smile." Jane smiled broadly at Lydia, obviously pleased with her information.
Lydia gave an awkward smile in response. Truthfully, she couldn't quite remember Colonel Thompson. She thought he had blonde hair, but it was possible she was mixing him up with another colonel, one whom she was having a difficult time ridding her thoughts of.
"So what do you think, Lydia?"
"About the gentlemen at the ball, of course!" Elizabeth threw her hands up in the air. "Lydia, you are making me feel like Mama!"
"Shall I fetch your salts, Lizzy?"
Jane giggled behind her hand. "Now girls, we should not speak so of Mama."
"Yes, Jane," they chorused, with only a slightly mocking tone.
Elizabeth looked at Lydia earnestly and took her hand, suddenly serious. "Lydia, I know it is incredibly frightening to marry again. It is incredibly frightening to marry the first time, even without your past experience! But to be married to someone who loves you, and whom you love in return, is a great joy. A joy I do not want you to miss. You are young yet. Younger even than Charlotte was when she married Mr. Collins! You could still be happy. You could have children, God willing. I want a full life for you. I am happy to have you here with me - always if that is your wish – but I do not want your own life to pass you by. I am not suggesting you marry just anyone, or even a conventional courtship. I realize that with your situation, you will need to know the man very well before you could commit to a life with him, as it should be. But if you will not even try, if you will not speak to anyone or even consider them, they will eventually stop seeking your attention. I am afraid that when you decide you do wish to marry again, it will be too late."
Lydia looked at her sisters and saw the earnest expressions in their eyes. She reached out and touched each of their knees. "Thank you, both of you. I know you only want what is best for me and I promise to try to think of the future and not let my fears get the best of me."
Elizabeth smiled. "Good. Now that we've got that sorted, there was something I wanted to talk to you about."
They went on to speak about their sister Catherine and her family, Lydia's mind continually straying to a sandy haired gentleman she had danced with the night before.
"Did you enjoy the ball, Miss Lydia?"
"Colonel Fitzwilliam! What a pleasant surprise!" She curtseyed and gestured towards a group of chairs nearby. "I had a lovely time. And you? Was my sister successful in finding you a marriageable partner?"
"You teasing woman!" He smiled as he sat across from Lydia in the conservatory. "I did dance with the young Miss Tatum, and it was as I expected."
"Too young to carry on a conversation with a seasoned gentleman such as yourself?"
"Too young by far! We seasoned gentleman prefer more mature company."
Lydia laughed lightly and asked, "Come now Colonel, you can't be that old. Mr. Darcy only turned forty last winter, and you are roughly the same age, are you not?"
"If you must know, I will be forty-two come November."
"Oh, you're right."
"Right about what?"
"You are old."
Lydia could barely contain her laugh and her eyes sparkled with mirth.
"Why you little minx!" He quickly rose and sat beside her, an unexplainable urge to tickle and kiss her into submission taking over him. He was leaning toward her when he came back to himself, and quickly rose and walked to the other side of the room where he pretended to study some sort of dark foliage.
Lydia did not know what to think. She had not teased a man so in years, not since George had shown her how he did not like to be undermined in as swift a manner as possible. But teasing Fitzwilliam had felt so natural, and she was so completely comfortable in his presence, it never occurred to her to be afraid.
Then he had moved toward her and for a moment, a small part of her wondered if he was going to hurt her, but a larger, stronger part knew she was safe, as safe as she would ever be, and welcomed his presence.
Now he had retreated and she did not know what to think. Had she imagined the look of playfulness in his eyes? Was the joy she thought she saw only in her imagination? Perhaps she was seeing what she wanted to see and he had moved about for some reason unconnected to her. After all, how well did she really know the Colonel?
Under the circumstances, she thought it best to change the subject and began talking of the new cuttings she had made and how she was trying to grow a larger vine to take to her sister's home in York.
After another twenty minutes of friendly chatter, she said she would leave to dress for dinner and he offered to escort her. Just before the hall that led to her room, he stopped and turned to her, resting his hand over hers as it lay on his arm.
"Miss Lydia, I hope I have not offended you?"
"Offended me? Of course not, Colonel! How could you possibly offend me?"
"My behavior was not... I am sorry, Miss Lydia. You are a friend and I would not wish to do anything that could harm our friendship."
"It is not harmed, Colonel Fitzwilliam, do not trouble yourself. I am glad we are friends." She looked down self-consciously. "You are the first man I have been comfortable with, besides my brothers, since, well, you know."
"Yes, I know," he said quietly. He looked down at her tenderly, at how her head was tipped to look at her shoes and her eyes were downcast. "Miss Lydia, do you think... do you..."
"Do I think what, sir?" she asked as she looked back at him.
"Do you think you could ever marry again? Truly?"
Her breath caught slightly. "I do not know. If the right man came along, I think I could be persuaded."
"And how would he go about persuading you? With pretty words and fine trinkets?"
"No! I have had enough of words. He would show me, with his actions and his kindness that he was devoted and true and all that is good in a man."
"Do you think this 'right man' will come along?"
She looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I believe he will, yes."
"And how will you know him when he does?"
"Quite easily, sir. For he has sandy hair and a kind smile, and the bluest eyes I've ever seen." Fitzwilliam smiled gently at her. "And he is brave, and honest, and a very good friend."
He reached up and stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. "Darling girl. Could you possibly find room in your heart for this old man?"
"I already have," she whispered. She smiled softly as he leaned toward her, and she tipped her chin up in encouragement.
The kiss was sweet and light, but full of promise.
"I have been wanting to do that for a while now," he said.
"Yes, I have." He looked into her smiling eyes and continued, "Lydia, my dear, sweet friend, would you give me the right to kiss you everyday? Will you marry me, Lydia?"
She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him eagerly.
"I'll take that as a yes," he said against her lips.
Lydia just laughed.
"What about this one?"
"A bayonet from a Frenchie," answered the Colonel as he lay stretched on his back with his hands behind his head.
Lydia ran her fingers gently over a silvery scar under his ribs. "And this one?"
"Training – swords. I was a young Lieutenant and a bit big for my britches. The Colonel put me in my place."
She sniggered softly. "You? Big for your britches? I can't imagine."
"Enough of that woman!" He quickly flipped them over so that she was on her back and he was leaning over her.
Lydia giggled and wrapped her arms around his neck. She lifted her head and placed a sweet kiss on his lips before returning her head to the mattress.
He stroked the hair off her forehead lovingly and smiled into her eyes. Slowly, his free hand slid the strap off one shoulder, then the other.
"Where did you get this?" he asked as he traced a finger over a faded pink scar below her left shoulder.
"An empty whiskey bottle," she said quietly.
He made a face – a cross between disbelief and compassion – and kissed the scar lightly. "And here?"
There was a tiny scar, long ago faded white, just above her right breast. "I fell out of a tree when I was six," she said lightly.
He chuckled softly. "And what were you doing in a tree, Miss Lydia? Didn't you know it's unladylike to climb trees?"
"I was following Lizzy."
"Ah, I see. Blame it on the sister, will you?"
She laughed at his expression and kissed his nose lightly. He leaned down and kissed her chin, then nuzzled his face into her neck.
"Mmm. This is how I thought it would be, you know."
"What?" he asked, his voice muffled by her hair.
"Between a man and a woman. Intimacy. Love."
He began nibbling at a sensitive place on her neck. "Are you pleased with your discoveries, my pet?"
"Quite," she said as she released a deep sigh.